Like I suspect a lot of people, my winter hiking this year looked a lot different than it has in the past. With the Oregon side of the Gorge—and all my favorite trails—closed by the Eagle Creek Fire, I stumbled around looking for places to go.
I often ended up at Table Mountain, just across the Columbia, staring into the burn as it shouldered its first seasons. Here are my four favorite trips, all jumbled up into one.
1. November 18, 2017
It’s a little before six in the morning, still black dark, and I’m sitting in the car at the Bonneville Trailhead, listening to wind and driving rain wail against the windows. It streams down in sheets, then rumbles like a river as it hits the pavement.
I know I have to get out at some point. I’m here to walk. I want to walk. I just also want to put it off as long as possible. I open the door, and it’s immediately flung back on its hinge. I get out, and the wind flings my hat across the parking lot.
Sort of an inauspicious start.
It rains hard for an hour, and I’m soaked through to the skin before the first rays of sun climb over the Columbia. But it eases with the morning light, and the day fades into a gloriously uneventful grey.
For the first few miles north of the river, the trail—the PCT here—traces a path through a patchy quilt of clearcuts, thin forest, and brilliant pothole lakes, leftover from the massive landslides that made the original Bridge of the Gods. The land’s miraculous in its way, but it’s been treated poorly. Logging trucks still rumble down the private roads that rend the trail at regular intervals.
The rain fades to nothing and the trail climbs away from the roads. It’s silent but for the waning autumn wind, rustling through the soon-to-fall leaves.
2. May 4, 2018
It’s a sunny spring morning, buzzing with biting bugs and blooming flowers, the hillsides all green and blue and red.
I’ve been walking through sun since six, but it’s only now—seven or eight easy miles in—that I feel like I’m waking up. Softly, like a summer morning with no alarm. Clean sheets. A clear day and no memories.
My plan’s to stay on the PCT past Table Mountain, taking a semi-circle around the peak, then eventually to ramble all the way to Three Corner Rock, six or seven north of here. I’ve actually been through here once before, in February, but the snow was so thick that I barely saw anything beyond a cold white wall. Here, on the cusp of summer, I feel as though I’m seeing it all for the first time.
On the long ridge that reaches north from Table, the grass is still matted from snow, lifted only by new yellow lilies. Deep white drifts as tall as me still stand in the shade, but I sink into their watery centers whenever I step on top. Everywhere streams cascade down. A singing bird nearly runs into my head.
I walk on, smiling through spring, trying to remember the definition of “revelry.” But just as I’m exiting off the northern shoulder of North Birkenfeld, it’s all interrupted by the sound of heavy machinery breaking ground around the next bend.
I turn to find another world. One moment I’m in the middle of a forest; the next I’m surrounded by stumps and slash piles, all brown and dead. A hundred feet below, a bulldozer and backhoe take turns picking at the ground, a high pile of what once were trees just behind.
Over the past month, I’ve been working with trail crews in the Eagle Creek Burn area, clearing slides and snags. In some of the worst hit areas, all the trees are black dead and the ground’s covered with feet of ash. But none of it’s been as bad as this. Funny, the asymmetry of our concerns.
The PCT’s still intact, so I run through the clearcut, crossing several new roads, all hastily cut into the hillside. After half a mile, I’m back in thin forest, carpeted with beargrass and tiny white flowers just at the edge of blooming. Soon the machine sounds fade back to chirping birds and wind.
Snow grows as the trail gently climbs toward Three Corner Rock, until I’m sidehilling on six- or seven-foot drifts, kicking in sloshy steps. The turnoff to Three Corner is completely buried, but I GPS it up until the trail joins an old jeep road, where the cut though the trees gets more obvious.
Once on top, the views are magnificent! The Washington Cascades are out, as is Hood to the south. I eat lunch in the ghost of an old fire lookout, watching the hills, and wondering about the ghosts of old trees.
After lunch, I jog back to and through the clearcut, then off the PCT onto Table Mountain’s beautiful north ridge.
The way meanders from one side of the ridge to the other, up and down small bumps on the way to the summit. Green grass and fresh flowers. There’s a tiny bit of scrambling in the last push, but nothing bad, and soon I’m standing on top, looking back at the way I came.
This is somehow the first time I’ve ever been up here without snow, and I make a meal of it, rambling from one corner to the other, stopping at every viewpoint, smiling in the warm, late afternoon breeze.
I walk to the southern edge, then crawl to the tip to look down at the colossal cliffs, remnants of those ancient landslides. Down there, spring’s rapidly warming to summer.
3. December 13, 2017
I’m on top of Table, but now it’s December, and everything’s covered in several feet of new, soft snow. I’ve been postholing in clouds for miles, though the sky’s beginning to clear.
I sit on the summit for half an hour, watching the light change on Mt. Hood, then trudge through snow-sagging trees to the top of the western ridge, which I’ll follow back down to the PCT.
Halfway down the ridge, the steady plod of my steps is interrupted by a happy, high pitched yelp. “Hello there!” Twenty feet above, there’s a man in a full snow suit, sitting in a director’s chair, drinking the biggest beer I’ve ever seen. “Nice day for a stroll, huh?”
I scramble up to meet him, and find he’s brought half the kitchen: a large block of good cheese, an entire loaf of bread, three more of those large beer, a thermos filled with god-knows-what…
He asks what I’m up to. “Oh, you know, just out for a walk.” He looks excited. “Me too!” A pause for beer. “Had the day off work and I figured, hell, it’s almost Christmas anyway.” I’m not at all sure what Christmas has to do with any of this, but there seems to bizarre sort of ineffable sense in his explanation. “Sure is,” I smile.
We chat for a while longer about nothing, but eventually I have to excuse myself. “Well, I better get going.” My friend looks excited again. “Well I better get drinking!” And he cracks another beer.
“Well,” I think as I climb back down to the PCT. “It’s almost Christmas, anyway.”
4. February 15, 2018
It’s early afternoon in mid-February—my birthday—and I’m sitting on the PCT at the base of Table Mountain. Behind me is the west ridge; in front is the Cedar Ridge way trail, which stretches from here to the highway, several thousand feet down.
It’s been snowing all morning—snowing as I climbed the PCT to Three Corner Rock, snowing as I got lost on the way back, and snowing as I decided to skip Table today, and bail down the ridge, hoping for farer skies.
As if on cue, the snow slows. Cedar Ridge drops to a densely wooded saddle, then climbs again, to the rocky top of Cedar Mountain. By the time I reach the summit, one could almost imagine a hint of sun.
The trail drops steeply down to Cedar Creek, then enters a maze of paths—some vaguely official, some certainly unofficial, and some possibly just streams. I follow one of the better ones down to Hamilton Creek, past one of the prettiest—and probably least visited—waterfalls in the Gorge.
The trail—if it is a trail—that I’ve been following deadends at the creek, but I find what maybe once was a railroad grade, and follow it upstream for a ways, climbing over fallen trees and tiny washouts. I think of being a kid in the woods behind my parents’ house, earning “Burly Points” with my friends for doing stupid things.
I wonder how many burly points this would get me.
Eventually I climb up from the creek, back to the falls, and up to Aldrich Butte—the last point on Cedar Ridge before it dips to the Columbia. There used to be a fire lookout here, and I sit for a long time in the old foundation, drinking a birthday beer and looking across the river, up the burned canyons on the Oregon side.
When I first saw those canyons, before the fire, they seemed full of a forest primeval—an ageless, unchanging, eternal thing that would always be there, always impossibly green. But of course I got that wrong.
I think of something from Arendt. If to live is to be among other living things—that is, to be part of the ordinary world, bound by ordinary time—then to seek an unchanging eternity is ultimately to seek a sort of death. I wanted the forest to be stable, a stable thing to stand still as the rest of my life changed. But that required seeing it as a thing, not as a community of living creatures, touched by time in their own ways.
Fire is part of the ordinary lives of these forests. It’s been burning here since before we arrived. The cycles of burn and rebirth are as natural to them as the cycles of winter and spring. It’s just that those cycles circle on timelines unsynced to ours. The last time fire hit here was so long ago that it’s almost beyond living memory. And so it’s easy to mistake the interim for infinity, and see the fire as some sort of aberration.
The sun’s beginning to set, setting the exposed snow on the burned hills all blue and red. It’s beautiful. I think of something my doctor told me before my kidney transplant, now more than half a life away. He said it would hurt, but that I needed to understand that the hurt wasn’t a signal something was wrong; it was a signal that something was changing—a change that my body’s primitive architecture was incapable of realizing was for the best.
The first time I saw the burned slopes, all I could see was the absence of what they’d been. The absence of what I’d loved. But staring now in the fading light, it’s impossible not to see their new beauty.
I still love that place exactly as I did before, I just now understand what it is a little better: not a forest primeval but a thing like me, suspended in time, moving forward on its own strange way.